Instead of walking down the sidewalk to my office, like I used to do, I’ve recently taken to cutting through Mrs. Talmadges’s backyard in the morning and afternoon. That’s not as rude as it sounds, because Mrs. Talmadge lived past 100 and died a few years back. The house has been empty for a while, but it’s owned by the hospital so I’m not trespassing.
More than a hundred years ago, Prince Avenue stretched for a mile with grand mansions rising on either side of the street. These days, the few old homes that survived have become the Suntrust bank, a doctor’s office, an event facility, the UGA president’s home, a fraternity house. A few decades back, our hospital acquired the Talmadge properties–after all, we’d been neighbors since 1919. Mrs. Talmadge enjoyed a “life estate” which gave her the right to live in her home for the rest of her years.
So over the years, the hospital campus grew up on the land around her white-columned Greek Revival home. The Julius Talmadge mansion next door to hers became the outpatient surgery center, with a modern surgery facility built off the back of the house. Our parking deck rose in the back corner of her yard, past the pecan trees. The hospital grounds crew pruned her azaleas and kept the grass cut just how she liked it. I can smell the perfume from the massive tea olives that flank Mrs. Talmadge’s front walkway as I walk through the doctors’ parking lot on the way to the cafeteria. The driveway to the Human Resources Building shares a row of irises, daffodils, crocuses and hyacinths with Mrs. Talmadge’s front yard.
And we were good neighbors for all those years. No employee EVER cut through Mrs. Talmadge’s property while she was alive. That would have just been tacky. I kept up that tradition for years myself. But now that the lady of the house is gone, the house sits quietly as the hospital bustles around it. And the backyard has been pulling at my heart this spring.
Gardens are planted to be admired, and Mrs. Talmadge’s garden feels lonely. Stuck there behind the empty house and the parking deck, it’s still doing what it’s always done–blooming, growing, showing off–and it deserves some admiration.
I come from a long line of people who plant gardens. So one morning when the grass wasn’t too wet with dew, I cut across Mrs. Talmadge’s backyard and I’ve been doing it ever since. Every morning, there’s something new to discover. In the afternoons, I run my hand across the warm red brick of the basement wall and I tell the house “Hey there, I see you.”
There’s a set of worn concrete steps that seem to lead to nowhere, but I can see they once made it easy to navigate a little terrace where the back driveway looped around the house from the porte cochere. Next to the steps, there’s an antique rose. Not the kind we’ve overbred for hardy hybrids with big showy blooms. This is an older gentlewoman, with delicate branches and soft red flowers in the summer that smell like roses are supposed to smell, not like the kind you buy chilled at the grocery store.
Under the dogwood trees, white Star-of-Bethlehem peek out from their deep green shoots. I spy violets in the grass, dark purple and white, and I cross my fingers that the grounds crew won’t cut them too soon now that the grass is greening up with spring.
And y’all–this morning, the air was filled with the smell of wisteria. Look at this astonishing specimen:
A vine that has found its way into the air, by leaning on a tree (I think it’s an oak but I’m not sure what variety). How many years did it take for these two to grow together, leaning on each other?
Old places, that have become what they are from the work of many hands over the span of many years–there’s so much to find in them.
Thank you, Mrs. Talmadge, for this garden and this reminder of how things grow. Leaning on each other, making space, keeping on even when there’s no one around to admire the splendor.